How to Beat Social Anxiety in 4 Steps
Anna doesn’t like to think back to her time in high school. Speaking in front of the whole class, group assignments, being called upon — these are the situations where Anna had to face her biggest fear: being negatively evaluated by other people. The mere thought of being the center of attention, with all her classmates’ eyes on her, still makes her heart race. She describes that all she wants in these moments is to vanish into thin air.
What Anna describes are signs of social phobia. Social phobia, or social anxiety, is a very common phenomenon. It is much more common than most people would think: About 12 % of people experience social anxiety at some point in their lives. Those affected worry excessively about negative judgment from other people, and live in constant fear of embarrassing themselves. Many of them have trouble speaking in front of crowds, or otherwise being the center of attention, or making friends.
A vicious circle begins: The more those affected isolate themselves and avoid the social situations that they fear, the bigger that fear grows. This is because pulling back robs them of any chance of experiencing positive social interactions and affirming their social skills. And then they tend to view the absence of fear as proof that social isolation is the best and only way to deal with their situation and reduce their fear.
Anna has experienced bullying in high school, which led her to believe that “I am not good enough, and I am not a worthy person”. And this made her pull back and avoid drawing any attention to herself. She reduced interactions with her classmates to a minimum for fear of embarrassment, which she had experienced at the hands of the bullies. Thus, she never really made friends and always felt like an outsider.
But that’s not how this story has to go for you, or for anyone that’s affected. At the core, what’s most important is to change our own deeply rooted thoughts and beliefs.
Four steps can help overcome social anxiety:
- Understand and overcome the root cause
Psychological research has identified several risk factors that play together in the development of social anxiety. Here are some examples of the most common factors:
- Genetic predispositions (heredity)
- “Model learning” (if parents are socially anxious, children observe their behavior and interpret it as a behavioral norm, and will imitate it)
- Personality traits (e.g., shyness and fear of new, unfamiliar situations)
- Certain thinking styles (e.g., negative self-image, catastrophic fantasies about the consequences of one’s behavior, perfectionism)
- Parents with a rather unemotional, but controlling and overprotective parenting style
- Unpleasant experiences with other people (e.g., being laughed at, humiliated, or excluded by others)
- Stressful life events (e.g., bullying, the death of a loved one, or a breakup)
- Excessive focus on oneself and one’s physical symptoms (e.g., blushing), thereby exacerbating these physical symptoms
Oftentimes, an interaction of several of these factors in combination with one or more key events are responsible for the development of social phobia. Key events are often moments when those affected have been publicly shamed or embarrassed. Bullying is among the most common triggers, often occurring in childhood or adolescence. Again, a vicious cycle can develop: Once a social situation goes wrong and is experienced as highly unpleasant, we try to avoid such situations in the future. For example, if a child is teased after giving a wrong answer at school, he or she is less likely to speak up again next time.
However, the more we actually manage to avoid such situations, the more difficult it becomes to reduce the fear again. The way this could happen is through positive social experiences, such as confirmation of one’s own competence by others. If, however, we do not put ourselves in situations in which others could evaluate our competence, we deprive ourselves of this opportunity — and the fear tends to increase rather than decrease.
Using the example of the school child, in the worst case, the absence of teasing after deciding to stop contributing in class is taken as evidence of the appropriateness of this behavior. Thus, in some cases, a child grows up to become more and more socially withdrawn. This is just one example — there are several tried and tested questions, techniques and exercises for identifying key individual events in psychotherapy.
2. Reprogram the Inner Critic
The average person thinks about 50,000 thoughts per day. Have you ever wondered what share of these thoughts is positive and which is negative? And maybe also what influence all these thoughts have on your well-being and your life?
We all have this voice in our head that, if we pay attention to it, speaks to us almost all day long. It can be helpful and remind us of things like “You wanted to go grocery shopping”. But very often this voice speaks to us in a very negative way — this is what we call the Inner Critic. The Inner Critic says things like “You won’t succeed in this, don’t even bother trying!” or “Oh dear, why did you do that now!?”.
Usually, this inner voice speaks to us in a more critical way than any “real” person ever would, let alone a friend. And for people with social anxiety, this voice is especially loud and critical. They often have thoughts going through their heads like, “Other people will think I’m boring or weird if I say something now. But if I don’t say anything, they’ll also think I’m boring. What am I supposed to do?”.
The Inner Critic is also a big fan of generalizations: “Everyone will laugh at me” or “No one finds me interesting” are its favorite phrases. An important step in overcoming social anxiety, therefore, is to learn to catch the Inner Critic before we give too much credence to its words, and to be careful to speak more kindly to ourselves.
Social phobics benefit greatly from learning to counter this voice with an antagonist: Self-Compassion or the “Inner Friend.” This generates an alternative internal dialogue that moderates the fear response instead of continuing to fuel it.
What’s incredibly helpful in this process is using so-called positive affirmations. Affirmations are core beliefs or dogmas, i.e., sentences that influence our subconscious. A positive affirmation is a self-affirming phrase that we tell ourselves over and over again to reprogram our thoughts. The goal here is to permanently change our behavior and feelings.
This works because thoughts, feelings and actions are interrelated. If we manage to permanently change our thoughts through affirmations, then after a while our behavior also changes, and even our feelings follow suit. For social phobics, working on their own self-esteem is often most effective here. This means identifying positive beliefs that aim to boost one’s self-esteem, which in turn reduces anxiety. Examples include:
I am good the way I am.
I perceive that I am popular.
I dare to be myself more and more every day.
However, the effect of affirmations is greatest when people come up with them on their own. Guidance on how to develop your own positive affirmations can be found here.
In everyday life, we usually rush from one situation to the next, thinking at breakfast about what’s coming up at work, and at work we plan what still needs to be done in the evening. If we are honest, we are rarely actually in the here and now with our thoughts. This causes stress, which has a negative impact on our health.
Mindfulness is an important step on the path to overcoming social anxiety. Mindfulness means being in the here and now — not just physically, but mentally as well. This is not a normal state for most people. Many of us are stuck with our thoughts either in the past, preoccupied with worries, or thinking about the future. The tendency of forward thinking is usually accompanied by the hope that at some point a state of contentment will arise, that there is, as it were, a goal to be reached — and then everything will be fine. But only then.
A mindful person, on the other hand, pays attention to the moment, but refrains from evaluating it. We tend to evaluate everything permanently. Being mindful means letting go of this evaluation and focusing on what is going on outside of our thoughts. A simple exercise for this is to concentrate on the breath and thereby create distance to our thoughts. The psychologist and meditation researcher Ulrich Ott from the University of Giessen describes the positive effect with the following image:
“I go up a mountain while meditating and look down into the valley. That means I’m now in a position that’s a bit removed from everyday life. I can look down on the whole.”
As a result, we are no longer completely identified with our own feelings and thoughts. This distance allows for an increasing confidence that “even the greatest inner dramas will resolve themselves if we manage not to act on the thoughts in question,” says psychologist Peter Malinowski of the University of Liverpool. That, in turn, leads to greater satisfaction and enjoyment of life in the long run. It also leads to less social anxiety, because the anxiety is a cognitive process, i.e., it’s triggered by the thoughts of the affected person, just like all other worries and fears.
Mindfulness can be trained very well through meditation and certain exercises and techniques. Particularly promising for social anxiety is the technique of detached mindfulness, which comes from psychological research on meta-cognition. Here, the aim is to sustainably change one’s attitude toward one’s thoughts.
4. Gradual exposure to your fears
The final step for those suffering from social anxiety is to expose themselves to their individual anxiety-triggering situations step by step. This means, facing one’s fears in small steps more and more often, ideally under guidance.
Let’s take the example of a person with a strong fear of having to give presentations at work in front of many people. A small first step might be to give a short presentation at home in front of a good friend. Next, the person could expand the circle of people, but still remain in a situation where there is virtually nothing at stake, so nothing can really go wrong. And only the very last step in this chain would then be to present in front of their colleagues or even customers.
For many of those affected, it is also helpful to practice meaningless small talk. The beauty of small talk is that there is nothing to lose, but much to gain. A pleasant small talk conversation can lead to a nice new contact. But if such a conversation goes wrong, that’s no problem either — so this is ideal “practice territory”. Here, too, it is advisable to gradually increase the level of difficulty: The first step could be a very simple, almost banal comment to a stranger. For example, a “nice weather today” to the person behind you in the coffee line. Worst case, the person may look at you a bit irritated. Best case, a short conversation ensues.
If this works well, the difficulty can be increased with exercises such as “Find something you have in common with a stranger” or “Find out something new about a person you already know”. Again, you’ll be successful only if you practice, practice, practice. In everyday life, we often encounter situations where we can make small talk without fear of negative consequences if something goes wrong. And as with any new skill we try to acquire, confidence comes with continuous practice.
So, what else can you do about it now if you are affected by social phobia?
Social phobia can usually be treated well with psychotherapy. The classic therapy approach for this is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, a psychotherapist accompanies you for several weeks. Together you will gain an understanding of where your anxiety comes from, and when and how it manifests itself. Exercises, role play and everyday tasks are used to practice self-confident behavior in social situations.
Alternatively (or in addition to therapy), there are now scientifically sound online programs that also accompany those affected, step by step, in overcoming social fears. Especially with Covid-19 disrupting our social routines and also the possibilities of receiving in-person counseling, these programs can be an option if you feel like you want to work on your fears.
One example of such a program is Kivona which I myself have developed. It works with interactive video lessons, therapeutic writing exercises, and weekly check-ins. Here, too, the first step is to identify the origins, symptoms of anxiety and individual avoidance behavior. The program then teaches you various techniques and methods to reduce the anxiety. Here, the program not only uses methods from CBT, but also the latest scientific findings from systemic and meta-cognitive therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, and narrative therapy. Apologies — so far the program is only available in German. If you’re interested in an English version, please let me know and also check out the English courses described here.
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